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April 5, 1997, Saturday

The Adventures of Alcott's First Feisty Heroine


Just a year ago, scholars announced the rediscovery of Louisa May Alcott's first novel, ''The Inheritance,'' written when she was around 17. For decades the manuscript had languished at Harvard, misfiled. Though the book has still not been published, it turns up tomorrow night as ''Louisa May Alcott's 'The Inheritance,' '' an unexpectedly charming and pretty family film.

This ''Inheritance'' includes innocent romance, horseback riding, a family fortune, long-lost relatives and other fantasies likely to please literary little girls. Though it is impossible to compare the film with Alcott's unpublished book, the story combines the fairy-tale plots she reserved for her potboilers with the independent, spirited heroines of ''Little Women'' and her other classics.

Young women of marriageable age are at the center of the tale. Edith (Cari Shayne) was adopted as an infant by the Hamilton family, and reared as a companion to their daughter, Amy. Though Edith has a vague role in the household, part upstairs family member and part downstairs servant, she has been well educated and clearly has refined and kind instincts.

The Hamiltons adore her as if she were their own child. Meredith Baxter plays Mrs. Hamilton, who has a slightly distracted air. Tom Conti is wonderfully endearing as Mr. Hamilton, a no-nonsense social rebel who insists that Edith accompany the family to a ball (as if her social status allowed it!). He even urges Edith to ride her horse in a race, though it was scandalous for a woman to compete. Mr. Hamilton is the first of Alcott's affectionate versions of her father, Bronson. James Percy (Thomas Gibson, who plays Dr. Nyland on ''Chicago Hope'') is the handsome visitor who turns out to be Edith's soul mate. But Edith is, of course, socially beneath him. And he is being pursued by Mrs. Hamilton's young cousin Ida, who steps out of her carriage with ''fast woman'' written all over her.

Her hair is a shade too red, her manner unacceptably forward. Luckily, James has the good sense to appreciate Edith instead. In the most romantic moment, alone in the woods, he teaches her to dance. Throughout, the film offers the serene, alluring look of 19th-century New England life.

There are a few clunky anachronistic touches here, especially in the blunt way that women's inferior status is spelled out. Mr. Hamilton, outraged about Edith's exclusion from the race, asks, ''Did you ever hear anything so stupid?''

Adult viewers, and even older children, will guess at the secret of Edith's birth long before the answer is revealed, in another character's teary deathbed scene. But along the way, the story retains its irresistible appeal. At the center is Ms. Shayne's modest but feisty Edith, a heroine who deserves her happy ending.

CBS, Sunday at 9 P.M.

Written by Maria Nation. Terry Dunn Meurer, John Cosgrove, Laurie Pozmantier and Jeffrey S. Grant, executive producers; Ed Self, producer; Bobby Roth, director. Kraft Premier Movie presentation and is an Alliance Communications, Cosgrove/Meurer and TeleVest Production.

WITH: Meredith Baxter (Beatrice Hamilton), Tom Conti (Henry Hamilton), Thomas Gibson (James Percy), Cari Shayne (Edith Adelon), Brigitta Dau (Amy Hamilton), Brigid Brannagh (Ida), Michael Gallagher (Louis), Paul Anthony Stewart (Frederick) and Max Gail (Arliss Johnston).

Correction: April 9, 1997, Wednesday

A television review on Saturday about ''Louisa May Alcott's 'The Inheritance,' '' broadcast on Sunday by CBS, included a misstatement from the network about the story's history. ''The Inheritance'' was indeed published, in February by Dutton.

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